Covid-19 Taught Us Many Important Lessons; But Did We Learn?

The Old Mutual Foundation aims to empower people and communities through education, skills development, enterprise development, employee volunteerism and overall socio-economic transformation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the CSI industry’s weaknesses, as it has in every sector of society. As CSI practitioners rushed in to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic, it quickly became clear that crisis cannot be managed without a clear strategy.

Did we learn the lessons offered by the pandemic? Many would say not. The prevailing view is that role players had no emergency plans and did not collaborate; as a result, many organisations ended up doing the same things in the same areas. This led to excess in some areas, where people received more than they needed, and lack in other areas, where people had to go without.

In hindsight, most industry leaders realised their mistakes and reflected extensively on how the pandemic should have been handled differently. More collaboration with each other and with government, while leveraging each other’s strengths, were cited as key strategic points for the future.

When another crisis hit, did we put our money where our mouths are, or was it all talk and little action? Honestly, I think it was the latter.

A second crisis arrived in the form of two fires: the Cape Town wildfire that left massive destruction in its wake, and the fire at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg.

With most media attention on the Cape Town wildfire, the CSI industry and businesses once again responded swiftly, following the hype and rushing in to help the University of Cape Town. Students on campus had to be evacuated and temporarily moved to hotels. We applaud the leadership of Gift of the Givers Foundation, the corporates and the volunteers that came out to assist.

However, once again our efforts were unstructured, with little collaboration taking place between the parties. Did we respond to the media hype or to the real developmental needs identified? Did we put into effect any tried and tested methods for assessing immediate, medium and long-term needs? Was our response a PR exercise or informed by collaborative relief, response and recovery efforts?

Very few made an effort to leverage their strengths and to fill the gaps where they could have made the most impact. Instead, we once again saw spontaneous decision-making with no clear direction, as everyone jumped on the same bandwagon.

For example, the student meals delivered to 27 or so hotels required polystyrene containers and plastic cutlery. I wondered why such assistance would be expected from a financial institution, Old Mutual, when numerous businesses already involved manufactured these in bulk as their core business. This should have been a no-brainer to those at the forefront of the relief efforts – get vehicles and trucks from those in the business of vehicle hire, fleet management or truck delivery services, as that is their strength, and so on.

In addition, there was an almost complete absence of support for the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital that had been gutted by fires two days before the Cape Town fires.

The media was almost silent on this matter. Why? This is a public academic hospital with a Covid-19 ward. Why the lukewarm response to the hospital and the big hype at UCT? We need to reflect and ask ourselves what actually informs our relief efforts. Do we identify more with a tertiary institution at which we studied than with a government hospital that serves mainly those without medical aid cover? To be more pointed, what informs where we go and where we don’t?

Inequality reared its ugly head once more! Let alone that April was our Freedom Month, and that 2021 has been declared ‘the year of Charlotte Maxeke: Promoting human rights in the age of Covid-19’. The Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg serves as a teaching platform for the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg and Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, under the Gauteng Department of Health. We note that UCT has established an emergency fund, and Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital is guided by the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) requirements; naturally we appreciate these aspects.

However, how should the industry have responded?

Firstly, we needed to assess. Instead of rushing in to aid UCT, we should have spoken to each other, collaborated and leveraged each other’s strengths to respond to both crises. This could have been done by forming a task team, thus centralising operations and mobilising the strengths of each individual role player. We should have let organisations like Gift of the Givers Foundation, the first, early responder, take the lead, together with others such as MSF SA/Doctors Without Borders, an emergency health response organisation. Gift of the Givers could have reached out to other like-minded organisations, as the corporate response to UCT was more than enough. What was lacking was civil society organisations’ participation.

We should also consider the different stages that happen during a crisis, which the Old Mutual Foundation refers to as the 3Rs: response, relief and recovery. We often see an over response during a crisis, but during the recovery phase, when most of the hype is over, there is nobody left to help. That is why it is so important to assess the situation and to determine during which stage your organisation’s efforts and strengths will have the most impact. It cannot be about the hype alone, but rather about a concerted effort to make a real difference in the areas where your strengths will shine.

Will we make the same mistakes again when the next crisis comes around?

Now is the time to prepare. We need to take a good look at ourselves, understand our individual roles, form partnerships, and go in with a developmental agenda that goes beyond immediate short-term needs. We need to allow new players to enter the response and relief space. We need to think about our strategies, develop agile and responsive internal processes to address emergencies – and change the narrative! We can also learn from organisations with more experience than we have, such as the global players that always address crises, e.g., UNHCR, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders. Only with these steps will we be able to respond effectively to crises, provide sufficient response and relief, and ensure a successful recovery.

Corporate Social Responsibility News (CSRNEWS) is South Africa’s leading Corporate Social Responsibility news, media and publishing firm. We create content on social responsibility, helping government, corporates, consultants, NPOs and NGOs to reach their target markets through appropriate, targeted development news.

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